Oklahoma City's Hub Cap Alley braces for change
Before the creation of Shields Boulevard, before construction of Interstate 40, Robinson Avenue south of downtown Oklahoma City was a heavily traveled U.S. highway that embarrassed civic leaders.
The stretch of road between Capitol Hill and downtown was lined with salvage yards, car accessory part stores and tire shops — a corridor known going back to World War II as “Hub Cap Alley.”
The affront was enough that long before the city attempted to use new urban renewal laws to rebuild downtown, officials first turned their attention to clear-cutting Hub Cap Alley. But business owners in the area fought back in court and at City Hall — and won.
With traffic rerouted to Shields Boulevard and Interstate 35, and a barrier created by the construction of the Interstate 40 Crosstown Expressway in the 1960s, the bad impression left by Hub Cap Alley was forgotten.
With the recent relocation of I-40, Robinson Avenue is again seen as a primary corridor, and civic leaders again don't like what they see.
But they also see its potential.
“South Robinson represents an interesting development opportunity for downtown,” said Jane Jenkins, president of Downtown Oklahoma City Inc.
“Links and connections are critical to downtown's vitality, and the Hub Cap Alley corridor is an important connection between Capitol Hill, the Oklahoma River and downtown. It is important that we address this strategically and get it right.”
As executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, Kari Watkins has seen first hand how an increasing number of cross-country travelers are exiting the new highway at Robinson.
“It's important to make sure that even in this transition time, we have to look at the gateways we want, not just with Robinson Avenue, but all of them,” Watkins said. “They should reflect what we're trying to do as a city.”
Watkins, who also serves on the MAPS 3 citizens subcommittee overseeing development of a future Core to Shore park between Robinson and Walker Avenues, believes a better future is ahead for the area.
The park also will replace the west half of Hub Cap Alley between the Oklahoma River and I-40.
After some urging by Watkins and others, the city installed signs telling travelers about the upcoming park and other improvements.
Watkins, however, hopes more can be done.
“We need to be open and tell our visitors what we're doing,” Watkins said. “Visitors will be patient if we tell them our vision. But if they are driving through an unkempt area, they are quicker to judge.”
A large portion of Hub Cap Alley, meanwhile, is already cleared thanks to the construction of the highway. Watkins and fellow MAPS 3 committee members are discussing whether to ask the City Council to proceed on a faster timeline to acquire the remainder of the west half of Hub Cap Alley — a task now scheduled to start in 2014.
“Hub Cap Alley is pretty cool,” Watkins said. “It could become what Automobile Alley (Broadway between NW 4 and NW 10) has become. But it will be slow growth.”
City Planning Director Russell Claus agrees that Robinson Avenue — and two other new highway entries at Western Avenue and Shields — need help. The roads were only open a couple months when Larry Nichols, executive chairman of Devon Energy, asked at a meeting of the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority whether anything could be done to improve appearances.
“These entrances into downtown are not a good introduction into the city,” Claus said. “We recognize that.”
Planning for the area between Bricktown, the Oklahoma River, and Walker Avenue — an area dubbed “Core to Shore” — began several years ago anticipating the challenges created by the highway relocation, Claus said.
Unlike the Urban Renewal efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, however, Claus is not advocating clearance of every building along Hub Cap Alley. He notes some buildings have the sort of character and potential that led to revivals of Automobile Alley, Film Row and other downtown area corridors.
“Not all of it will be salvageable on either side of the road,” Claus said. “But it's important to integrate some of that into new development. I don't think we can do an entirely clean slate approach.”